A drumbeat starts up and it’s swiftly joined by a pulsing bass and keyboards that chirp incessantly like excitable insects. The sound builds, heralding the entrance of wailing vocals that seem to ricochet off the limestone pinnacles jutting from the emerald sea. The party has started early on one of the innumerable vessels that ply the waters of Halong Bay and everyone is invited: whether we like it or not.
Fortunately, Cuong, the captain of Dragon Bay, the junk on which I am hitching a ride, is steering a sure course away from the melee and through the karsts to Bai Tu Long Bay – Halong’s much less noisy neighbour. As the boat arrows eastwards, the caterwauling subsides, leaving us in peace with the wondrous scenery that is starting to unfold as we head deeper into this less travelled part of the Gulf of Tonkin.
In densely populated Vietnam, true solitude can be difficult to find – even when you are adrift on an ocean miles from the nearest city. That’s especially true of Halong Bay, a destination that has never been hotter. The UNESCO World Heritage Site even played a starring role in the 2017 Hollywood movie Kong: Skull Mountain.
Tourism chiefs in Vietnam, meanwhile, made the bay the focus for their 2018 marketing efforts. There are many, though, who would argue that it is now a victim of its own success, with the hundreds of boats that plough the green waters all following a handful of identical routes.
Bai Tu Long, however, retains all the majesty of Vietnam’s premier bucket-list natural attraction while seeing a fraction of the traffic of Halong Bay. The two seascapes are virtually interchangeable. Nam, the resident guide on Dragon Bay, tells me that the limestone outcrops that reach perpendicularly out of the waters of Bai Tu Long are not as lofty as the ones at Halong, but you’d need to be a seriously obsessed karst aficionado to spot the difference.
Many visitors to Vietnam choose to whiz through the country from north to south, or vice versa, marking off the major sights on the way. Many of the tour companies that operate in Halong Bay cater to this box-ticking approach to travel, whisking visitors from Hanoi to Halong City and then out onto the water for a two-day, one-night cruise. The system is undeniably convenient and some of the boats are very luxurious indeed, but the experience is somewhat rote.
That’s where Bai Tu Long and vessels like Dragon Bay, one of several beautiful, traditional-style boats run by leading luxury operator Indochina Junk, come in. Our three-day, two-night itinerary doesn’t deviate much from those in Halong Bay. There’s a bit of kayaking here and a visit to a cave there, with an excursion to a floating village that conveniently includes a souvenir shop and a pearl retailer.
On this laid-back boat, there are only six of us and – as Nam tells us soon after boarding – we are not beholden to any schedule. That leaves us with less than stressful dilemmas like choosing between a languid paddle through the karsts or lying back with a book on the boat’s sundeck. Below deck, the wood-panelled quarters are tasteful, if not opulent, and large portholes offer a view of the scenery in air-conditioned comfort.
On our first day, we get an afternoon master class on the art of making goi cuon (Vietnamese fresh spring rolls) from Mr Vuong, our talented chef. Although I once lived in the country and have returned on numerous occasions, my mastery of the subtle art of Vietnamese cuisine has so far proved elusive, and my clumsy attempts at this classic are no match for Vuong’s perfectly executed versions. Later I find a much less taxing – and far more enjoyable – diversion by leaping from the sundeck into the warm ocean for a splash around.
The following morning, I pilot my kayak through a narrow passage that spears through the heart of one of the outcrops. I’ve been paddling for a good 10 minutes in the pitch-black tunnel, using my oar to fend off stalagmites and stalactites. Suddenly, shards of sunlight penetrate the darkness and seconds later I am drifting out into a giant lagoon hemmed in by steep cliffs.
Besides my fellow intrepid explorers from the Dragon Bay junk there’s not another soul in sight – no party boats, no processions of tourists trekking into caves, no floating hawkers selling tourist tat. As eagles soar high above and animal noises emerge from the jungle, it is impossible not to be thrilled by a destination that, thus far, still offers the chance to be alone.
Cathay Dragon flies to Hanoi from Hong Kong 12 times a week
Bai Tu Long Bay hit list
Co To Island
The tourist junks don’t go as far as Co To. It’s the furthest inhabited island in Bai Tu Long Bay from the mainland, but it has some of the best beaches in North Vietnam, making the ferry journey worth the trip.
Vung Vieng fishing village
Sure, the pearl farm feels a little touristy, but a pit stop at Vung Vieng offers visitors the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a working floating village.
Tra Ban Island
One of the most idyllic of the islands in the Bai Tu Long archipelago, Tra Ban is particularly famous for its butterfly-spotting possibilities.
Thong Thien Cave
The limestone karsts that characterise Bai Tu Long Bay (as well as Halong Bay) are honeycombed with spectacular caverns, and Thong Thien is one of the most popular stops.
Cua Ong Temple
Back on the mainland, just outside the city of Cam Pha, this magical temple pays tribute to General Tran Quoc Tang, a national hero in Vietnam, and features stunning views over Bai Tu Long from its hilltop perch.